The pandemic of coronavirus has flung us, unwilling and disbelieving, into a time of uncertainty. Hiding out in our homes, we try to deny the upheaval in our lives. We’ve lost the life we knew just a few months ago. As described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of loss include denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. In this COVID era, we feel angry that the normalcy of our lives has been swept up from under us – everything on hold. We mentally bargain with that invisible piece of protein-wrapped RNA, for a return to visits with family or something as simple as a spree at the mall. We mope within our four walls, wallowing somewhere between relief that we are still well and fear of where the virus might catch us out. There are moments of acceptance when we look at the numbers on a computer screen, confirming infection of millions. Yet as the cases climb by the minute, we return to denial.
And so, each day and sometimes for parts of each day, our mood and energy vacillate between up and down, coping and not. For many of my generation, this is the first real test of our mettle. My grandfather survived the Spanish Flu as a young man. My father, born at the tail end of the Great Depression and living on a farm on the prairies, experienced true hardship. My in-laws survived the Second World War in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Budapest and knew what fear and hardship were. Anyone who is or has battled a life-threatening disease, survived war, famine, or natural disaster, or suffered in any deep, soul-affecting way, understands at their core the meaning of uncertainty.
Now that we are faced with some degree of uncertainty every day, what does the CURE (Compassion, Understanding, Respect, and Empathy) have to offer?
In a recent weekly commentary on biblical Scripture (Emor), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks made the following comments:
Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. What makes the Torah (Bible) so powerful is that it does not pretend that life is any easier than it is. The road is not straight, and the journey is long. Unexpected things happen. Crises suddenly appear. It becomes important to embed in a people’s memory the knowledge that we can handle the unknown(Sacks)
It may be that the cure for uncertainty is in the building of story – to remind ourselves of who we are.
A few years ago, on a lark, I attended a storytelling evening in my community, led by an amazing and captivating storyteller (Lisa Bloom) who wanted to create a safe and encouraging space for others to hear and tell stories. Storytelling is an art and not comprised of just a good story line – it must be genuine. I got up on the makeshift stage and slowly recounted an experience as a medical intern when I learned about the value of connecting with a patient for the first time. It came from the heart and I was surprised to see a few tears in the audience. More surprising was my first prize and a great t-shirt that says, “I Tell Great Stories”. Since then, I wear it often and with great pride – because it reminds me of a talent I never appreciated. It could have said, “I Found the Treasure” or “Look at What I Can Do!”– the message would have been the same. I was tickled pink to discover something new that gave me a sense of passion. I had found a “missing piece” of myself.
Each time we delve into ourselves and allow something subconscious or unrecognized to bubble to the surface, it creates a greater whole – a process inherent to psychology, invention, and creativity of all kinds. If we are open to it, we grow from it. And, like prying the prize from the Cracker Jack box, it feels good. Sometimes being open means contemplation of our weak or dark side.
Debbie Ford, in her book, “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers”, talks about facing one’s shadow and suggests that the dual concept of good and evil, or wellness and illness, allows us to close the door on what we don’t like or want. Emotional traumas, for example, can be repressed for years or a lifetime. Character traits such as anger, impatience, and intolerance are readily overlooked, denied, or minimized.
Each room in your castle has its opposite somewhere in the same castle. Open all the doors to make the castle whole(Debbie Ford)
Karl Jung explored aspects of a shadow side to common human traits which he called archetypes. Joseph Campbell emphasized the impact of mythology, and in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, describes the hero’s journey:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow manJoseph Campbell
When we are whole, we are stronger, wiser, and more empowered to tackle the challenges of the world. We also flex our resilience muscles when we try something new or challenging. How else then can we flex those muscles, that ultimately make us more likely to overcome challenges in the future? In the messages of Rabbi Sacks, Karl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and others who advocate the power of story, we can appreciate a unique antidote to uncertainty: finding the story, with you as the hero. As Sacks iterates: if, in the story we have survived, then we have the power to survive again – as an individual or as a people. It is the repetition of the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can!” which is the theme of so many children’s books, that creates the confident child, the invincible adolescent, and the successful adult.
In this modern age of busyness, we’ve drifted out of touch with our mythic side. Magic and wonder feed our inner hero. Before COVID, how many of us stopped to proverbially smell the roses? Instead of navigating the uncertainties of life empty-handed, we can carry a beacon of light, a sword of power, or walk alongside a lioness of mythic proportions. Whether we are trying to cope with the emotional challenges of quarantine, the loss of a loved one, personal illness, or “dis-ease”, when there is uncertainty (and there always will be) we need more than trust, faith, or pure grit – we need to know our story, our journey. The journey effects the hero’s transformation – from illness to wellness or wherever we need to be taken.
The CURE is being compassionate with ourselves during this time of change.
The CURE is seeking to understand, and even embrace, our weaknesses and foibles – our shadow side. COVID robs us of much but it also gives us a unique opportunity for personal growth and introspection. In the business world, leadership is also embracing vulnerability. Tanuj Kapilashrami, group head of HR at Standard Chartered Bank, states that the number one trait that has emerged from market research is that leadership needs to manage ambiguity. Even corporations need a story.
We must respect and honour the power of story, of truth embedded in memory.
And finally, we must empathize with others – as they live and build their own stories. This takes patience and encouragement on our part. According to Campbell, what matters is how you handle the challenges life presents – whether you develop the maturity in the face of its tests to go from a harried and scared individual to an open and engaged member of the human race.
Reminder: We are each whole and each one part of a whole.
Action for today: Explore and write your hero’s journey (Google it) or at least become aware of the words you use to define yourself. Choose a mantra for today that empowers you.
Hero: TK Hammonds; Child next to barbed wire: Ben Richardson; Surprised child: Pete Wright; Woman and her shadow: Fernando Rodrigues